It seems to be a truism that most of us become more conservative and resistant to change as we get older. But why? Is there anything we can do to remain flexible and open to new ideas as we age? Or perhaps there is something to be learnt from those who’ve been there and done it all before?
“If you're under 30 and not a liberal, you don't have a heart, but if you are over 30 and not conservative, you don't have a brain."
This adage has been attributed to everyone from Winston Churchill to Victor Hugo and, to all intents and purposes, it seems to reflect a common phenomenon; younger people tend to be more liberal, becoming more politically conservative as they age 1,2. The same holds true for other areas of life - perhaps you’ve even seen it in yourself, in the more risky and reckless behaviours that you didn’t think twice about aged 18, yet now shudder at the thought of. Younger adults are, as a general rule, more open to new experiences 3. Their neural circuitry also rewards risk-taking and is programmed to process new information quickly 4, helping them to learn about the world outside the family home that they’re beginning to navigate alone for the first time.
It makes sense that a young person’s brain has evolved to glean information from their environment and learn from and adapt to it quickly – indeed, this is what humans are good at. It’s this that has allowed us to survive and thrive in environments across the globe (and beyond). According to research, our early to mid-20s is the period of our lives when we are most open to new experiences and in which we process information the quickest, which again is logical; for many of us, this period of our lives is very busy and changes dramatically not just year to year but even month to month, in terms of our relationships, careers and even ourselves.
As we age, however, the way we think about the world changes. Our information processing capacity slows down drastically, and across the board we become relatively less open to new experiences 3. This is not to say that there are no open-minded older people – clearly that’s not the case, and I’m sure most of us can think of at least one individual who has shocked us with their openness well into old age – perhaps a grandparent or neighbour who everyone describes as young at heart? But, for these individuals, it’s likely that they have always been more open-minded than their peers; longitudinal studies have demonstrated that our unique level of openness to new experiences tends to diminish over time, regardless of the base level.
If it seems to you like a raw deal that, as we age, we lose our capacity to process new information as quickly as we once could (coupled with a diminishing desire to experience new situations and ideas), not all is lost. As we grow older and accumulate more life experiences, we begin to rely on different tools to make sense of the world: primarily patterns and stereotypes 5. For instance, if we know from experience that we don’t like the busy-ness of cities, we’re unlikely to move to one. Likewise, if we’ve seen several of our friends break a limb whilst skiing, perhaps we’ll be less likely to want to try it out ourselves.
Another way of putting this is that, as we get older, we turn to data – data we ourselves have observed and collected – to inform our opinions and decisions. As we know, data can be a very valuable tool to rely on, particularly if we have a lot of it, as it can show us trends and helps us determine the probability of different outcomes occurring - without us having to test it out ourselves and potentially getting hurt in the process. We all know what it’s like to rely on our own data and stereotypes to make decisions – it’s why we don’t make the same bad choices today that our younger selves once did. As the saying goes, “to be old and wise, you must first be young and stupid”.
However, whilst it can certainly be an effective cognitive shortcut to rely on the patterns and stereotypes we have formed to make decisions about the world (and indeed, we should try to learn from all our experiences), we must also remember that the world from which we gathered this data is constantly changing. What was true (or accepted as true) yesterday, is not necessarily true today.
Whilst the young can try to learn from (or, at the very least, respect) those with more experience, as we grow older, if we wish to retain an accurate grasp on today’s reality, we also should try to remember the benefits of experiencing life through a fresher pair of eyes. If we’re willing to stay curious and be open to learning (even if this learning contradicts our long-held beliefs), then our worldview is more likely to be objective and accurate.
Studies have shown that the older we get, the more self-esteem is linked with conservative beliefs 6. It’s thought that this helps people make sense of their personal history in the wider context – if someone has acted in line with certain societal mores their entire life, they are more likely to cling to those values, rather than examine the uncomfortable questions of: “is it really ethical or fair to behave in this way?” and “did I get it wrong?” when more data comes to light.
For instance, whilst homophobia continues to be an issue in modern society, much progress has been made over recent decades. Most young people today wouldn’t bat an eyelid at a same-sex couple and, indeed, for many gen-Zers in particular, sexuality is now seen as being on a spectrum, rather than the traditional binary divide so many of us grew up with. At the same time, many of us will have experienced older people holding homophobic beliefs and behaviours – for instance, being appalled that a same-sex couple might hold hands or kiss in public, yet thinking nothing of it if a heterosexual couple were to do the same thing.
The purpose of this article is not to denigrate older people – certainly, ageism too is very prevalent in our society, and there is plenty we can learn from our elders. What I am keen to encourage, however, is an awareness of how reliant we become on stereotypes and patterns to inform our decision making as we age. If we’re aware of this, we can all try to avoid the pitfalls of never updating our ideology, even as the world changes around us.
How so? It’s quite simple; starting now, we should try to remember that ideas evolve in line with new evidence. If we can be curious about this evidence and be willing to update our old ideas – in short, if we can be humble and willing to be wrong – well, we’re on the right track. We can do this by listening, learning and discussing. We can also do this by pushing ourselves to try new experiences, therefore breaking out of the comfort zones that so influenced our current patterns, stereotypes and worldview.
Alex Grunnill works for Stillpoint, and is based in London, UK. She is passionate about psychology, travelling, sustainability and linguistics. She hopes eventually to train as a psychotherapist. You can find her on Linked In.
- Age differences in conservatism - ScienceDirect
- Age differences in conservatism: evidence on the mediating effects of personality and cognitive style - PubMed (nih.gov)
- Personality development across the life span: longitudinal analyses with a national sample from Germany - PubMed (nih.gov)
- Brain circuit that helps us adapt to change fades with age, study finds - ABC News
- Do we really become more bigoted with age? Science suggests yes. - Vox
- Conservatism is good for you: Cultural conservatism protects self-esteem in older adults - ScienceDirect